This time, the Addams Family gets it right

November 19, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

"The Addams Family," of two years ago, wasn't so much a movie as a series of dreary skits which set up the occasional static recreation of great moments from the oeuvre of the brilliant New Yorker cartoonist Charles Addams, who originated the macabre deadpan as a comic mode. It was OK if your taste in entertainment ran to dioramas.

Of course it made a lot of money because, via an even drearier mid-1960s TV series, it was hardwired into the collective unconscious of the Big Generation spawned by the four years of artificial abstinence in World War II. It was like taking candy from a baby boomer.

Now here comes the sequel, "Addams Family Values," which has two things going for it the original never had:

It is an actual movie.

It is an actual good movie.

The movie skates easily between a variety of subplots but each has an organic connection to the film's central value. That value is surprisingly resonant, despite the milieu (grotesque) and the personality of its most famous advocate, Dan Quayle (even more grotesque): Family -- any family, even one so cheerfully dysfunctional as the death-haunted, chalky-skinned, tomb-cool Addamses -- is better than no family. So "Addams Family Values," as a title, turns out not to be ironic at all, as sophisticates must have presumed, but dead-on literal, with an emphasis on the dead.

In one of its regions, a gold-digging, possibly murderous young woman named Debbie (Joan Cusack) has married Uncle Fester (Christopher Lloyd) with an eye toward separating him from the family and his life on the way to acquiring his fortune. In another, those two icicle-chilly children, Wednesday (Christina Ricci) and Pugsley (Jimmy Workman) are made to do penance at a remorselessly upbeat summer camp that appears to be run by human chipmunks who've been in really good fraternities and sororities. And finally, Gomez and Morticia (Raul Julia and Angelica Huston), the uber-parents, must struggle to come to terms with the fact that their family is disintegrating.

The three women pretty much carry the movie. If the hair pie and Thing the hand are negligible presences this time through, thank heavens. Julia has fun but seems weightless. Huston has never been more majestic. The performance is truly commanding and all the more so because of the extent to which the high style of the conceit inhibits the actor's resources. Really, sewn into a gown which is like a radioactive corset tightened by a professional wrestler, with her face slathered in makeup that reproduces the corpse's pallor, she's reduced to eyes and voice. They are enough: Those huge eyes carry their own special eloquence and her icy deadpan and exquisite comic timing make Morticia the serene center of the film. She seems almost mythical, a Circe without the attitude problem.

Then there's Ricci, who's been given much more to do. In fact, the movie's most amusing gambit watches as she subverts Camp Chippewa, a summer camp whose secret agenda is to sabotage the self-esteem of any child who is not blond and perfect. Anyway, Ricci, victimized by this system for thought-crime (she won't smile, and is sentenced to spend time in Chippewa's Room 101, called the "Harmony Hut," where Disney movies are shown over and over and over), she decides to bring it down by turning a puerile Thanksgiving pageant (called "A Turkey Named Brotherhood") into an authentic massacre, complete to fire. It's hysterical.

Finally Cusack. Her "Deb" is bosomy, lethal and exquisitely self-justifying and self-dramatizing. The ultimate victim, though she's apparently murdered two other husbands, she explains that nothing is her fault, as she was given a Malibu Barbie doll when she was 12 when she really wanted a Ballerina Barbie. The performance seems somewhat inspired by Melanie Hudspeth's dazzling valley girls on "Saturday Night Live" for the past few years, all that self-important blondness gone psycho, but it's nevertheless heavily amusing.

"Addams Family Values" turns out to be both a trick and a treat.

"Addams Family Values"

Starring Angelica Huston and Raul Julia

Released by Paramount

Rated PG-13

***

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